Whenever I’m asked how to become a career novelist, I think of the motto of the crew in Galaxy Quest, whose response to dire adversity is the rousing redundancy, “Never give up! Never surrender!” If I had succumbed to either of those urges—which arose many, many times during my lean years—I would never have gotten published. Perseverance, resilience, determination in the face of rejection. It’s a common theme, to the point of cliché, but you’ll hear it over and over again when asking for advice about how to make it as a writer because it’s true.
For me, even deciding to become a writer was a long haul. I admire the clarity of those who said they wanted to write novels ever since they were little kids. It never occurred to me that I could write stories for a living. I’ve always loved reading, particularly thrillers, but I’m also a fairly practical person. I was fairly proficient in math and science, so I knew I could make a decent living as an engineer. After a couple of years at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, I went to graduate school and left with a Masters and PhD. It was during that time I was introduced to writing my own stories.
My wife convinced me to take a science fiction writing course from renowned author Nancy Kress. The class spurred me to attempt writing my first novel, The Catalyst. I sent it to five agents, one of whom read it and gave me encouraging feedback. I was quite a novice in the publishing biz at the time, so I had no idea how good a one-out-of-five response rate was. I got discouraged and stopped sending The Catalyst to agents, much to my wife’s chagrin (she promised she’d see it published some day, which it now is; I’ve since learned to listen to her).
But I had caught the writing bug, and at that time my wife was applying for medical school. So we made our own deal. I would support her through nine years of pre-med, med school and residency, and when she was a full-fledged doctor, I would get to quit my job and write full-time, with the goal of getting published in nine years.
Right on schedule in 2005 when my wife became an attending physician, I quit my job in the Microsoft Xbox group and started writing my second novel, Rogue Wave. When I finished the book, I sent it to agents, but I didn’t quit at five. I did stop counting the rejections at 50, though. At least five agents read the entire manuscript, but nobody wanted to represent it.
I didn’t give up. I didn’t surrender. I wrote another book. One mistake I see writers make is that they keep re-writing the same book over and over, year after year. My advice is let it go. Move on. If you want to write for a career, you’ll need to write more books anyway, so why not start now? Besides, self-publishing is a viable alternative if you can’t find a publisher, which was something I’d soon learn.
In 2007, I completed my first draft of a thriller I called The Ark. That year, Thrillerfest inaugurated a new program called Agentfest, where I pitched my book to agent Irene Goodman. She loved the premise and asked to see it.
When the final draft was ready, she was among the first agents I sent it to. She received the chapters on a Monday and by Thursday offered representation. After a few rounds of polishing, she sent it out to publishers in early 2008.
We got what I call “rave rejections.” Editors loved the concept, plot and characters, but they just couldn’t see how it would fit into a crowded thriller market. Twenty-five publishers turned The Ark down, and any hopes for seeing it in print were effectively gone.
In early 2009, I was just completing my website, and I decided, why not try to build up a readership by self-publishing my novels as ebooks? They weren’t doing any good just sitting on my hard drive. Around that time, the Kindle 2 was about to come out, and Amazon was starting to let unpublished authors put their manuscripts up for sale on the Kindle store. I decided to put all three books on the Kindle as an experiment. Irene was fully supportive of the plan. I had nothing to lose, and I was armed with glowing blurbs from generous authors like James Rollins, Douglas Preston, Jon Land and Chris Kuzneski.
In the second week of March 2009, I listed my three books on the Kindle store for prices ranging between $0.99 and $1.99. I did no marketing or advertising. My plan was to see what would happen.
Within several days, readers on web discussion forums noticed the low price on my books (there were very few self-published authors on the Kindle at the time). Due to good word of mouth, I sold 7,500 copies of all three books in just three months. That may not sound impressive now, but back then when iPad and Nook hadn’t even been invented, that was a surprising number for an unknown author. By June, my books were selling at the rate of 4,000 copies per month.
Because of the velocity of my sales, Irene was immediately able to take that data to publishers. Simon & Schuster saw the reception for my books and offered me a deal. As far as we can tell, I was the first author to get a Big Six publishing contract for a self-published Kindle book. S&S acquired The Ark and its sequel in a two-book deal. On the strength of that deal, my foreign rights agent, Danny Baror, was able to secure deals in 22 foreign markets. Simon & Schuster also acquired the rights for The Catalyst and Rogue Wave, so essentially I had a four-book deal.
The road since then has been a bit bumpy, and now I’m back to self-publishing in the U.S. for my fifth book, The Roswell Conspiracy. Although it’s being published by Little, Brown in the UK, by Random House in Germany and by Audible in the U.S. as an audiobook, S&S cancelled the contract for The Roswell Conspiracy.
Despite this detour in my publishing journey, I’ll still keep writing books as long as people want to read them, because giving up and surrendering just isn’t going to happen.Boyd Morrison is a Seattle-based author, actor, engineer, and Jeopardy! champion. He started his career at Johnson Space Center, where he flew on NASA’s Vomit Comet, the plane used to train astronauts for zero gravity. He went on to earn a PhD from Virginia Tech, develop 13 patents at RCA, and manage a video game testing group at Microsoft before becoming a full-time writer. His debut thriller, THE ARK, became an international bestseller and has been translated into 21 languages. His other thrillers include THE ROSWELL CONSPIRACY, THE CATALYST, THE VAULT, and ROGUE WAVE. For more info, visit www.boydmorrison.com.